The 1956 album – just a 10-inch disc – was actually a compilation of songs released as 78rpm discs for Tanza by Bill Wolfgramm and His Islanders. But Walker received co-billing for this South Pacific fantasy. Her singing, wrote Nick Bollinger in 2009, “evokes both the easy warmth of the islands and the glamour of a Hollywood diva.”
The romance had lingered: In 2000, nearly 50 years after it was first recorded, Walker’s biggest hit, ‘Haere Mai (Everything is Kapai)’, was revived for a hugely popular television advertisement for Qantas in New Zealand.
Walker’s first release came in 1954 with ‘Haere Mai’, a jaunty pop song by Wellington writer Sam Freedman.
Walker grew up on Great Barrier Island in Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf, roaming the beaches with her friends, enjoying singalongs around campfires. She moved to Auckland to go to secondary school and had no musical training. Walker first came to notice in 1949 singing in a talent guest. Johnny Bradfield, a leading Auckland guitarist, recruited her to sing with Wolfgramm’s Hawaiian String Band at a live broadcast from the 1YA studios.
Walker’s first release came in 1954 with ‘Haere Mai’, a jaunty pop song by Wellington writer Sam Freedman. On its follow-up, ‘Maori Brown Eyes’, the billing on the label was reversed to read “Daphne Walker with Bill Wolfgramm and His Hawaiians”. Mac McKenzie, the historian of the lap steel movement in New Zealand, said, “It was sung everywhere by everyone, all trying to copy Daphne’s soft yet clear voice with the perfect vibrato for hula or poi.”
Walker would go on to record more than 30 sides for Tanza, and many EPs and albums for Viking and Armar. Most were in the Hawaiian style, even the early hit ‘Hootchy Kootchy Henry’, a country song that was – one reviewer noted – “transformed into the palm-hip-swaying idiom by Wolfgramm”.
Despite her productivity in the studio, Walker was reluctant to perform in public. A stint with Bill Sevesi’s band at the Orange Hall was short-lived. “I couldn’t face singing in public,” she said. “I’ve always been like that – I just freeze.” But Sevesi was impressed by her control in the studio, especially of her breathing.
In 1960, Walker changed labels to Viking, where Murdoch Riley encouraged her to move away from Hawaiian material into songs that reflected New Zealand more. He recalled to Gordon Spittle in 1992: “I was getting fed up with ‘The Lovely Hula Hands’, ‘On the Beach at Waikiki’ and that type of song. I felt we had songwriters in New Zealand to write material in the same vein, so why didn’t we use them?”
On the 1963 album New Zealand Maori Songs, Walker recorded several Maori pop standards, such as ‘E Puru Tai Tama’, ‘Marama Mai’ and ‘He Puti Puti Pai’. Her last release came in 1966, with the album Coconut Grove. Besides Wolfgramm and Sevesi, among her collaborators were lap steel player Trevor Edmondson, singers George Tumahai and Lyn Peyroux.
While the fashion for Hawaiian style music would eventually fade, Walker’s career in the 1950s and early 1960s was more than she was comfortable with. “I don’t think a girl needs to work too hard to become a singer,” she told Record Monthly in 1956. “In fact, I don’t think anyone should work hard.”
She said her favourite music wasn’t Hawaiian pop, but jazz and blues. The Monthly’s reporter noted that her songs seemed to suggest that love was all one required – did she agree? “No, I don’t,” said Walker. “It’s a home you want – a home and comfort.” And what did she like doing, apart from music? “Cooking.”